Whatever Happened to John Carpenter’s Creature From The Black Lagoon?

Universal's classic monster movie Creature From The Black Lagoon was almost remade by John Carpenter in the 1990s. So what happened?

It’s one of the great suspense scenes in ’50s genre cinema: a woman swims in the clear cool water of an Amazonian lagoon, blissfully unaware of the grotesque creature emerging from the depths beneath her. The score builds to a crescendo as the monster closes in, reaching out with a clawed, webbed hand…

Director Jack Arnold directed some of the best American sci-fi movies of the post-WWII era, and Creature From The Black Lagoon is perhaps his most famous. About a team of scientists investigating the fossilised remains of a strange man-fish hybrid – and discovering the thing still very much alive in the depths of the Amazon – the movie was a sizeable hit for Universal when it came out in early 1954.

The cultural impact of the movie and its amphibious creature far outstripped its box-office: Marilyn Monroe even commented on the movie in her 1955 comedy classic, The Seven Year Itch. The monster “just wanted to be loved” Monroe said as she emerged from a cinema – perfectly summing up the timeless allure of Arnold’s movie. The Gill-man may be ugly, but he’s far from evil – an idea producer William Alland took from Beauty And The Beast when he came up with Creature From The Black Lagoon‘s initial concept. 

The Gill-man quickly joined the canon of Universal Monsters, standing proudly alongside Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and The Invisible Man. Two sequels followed in quick succession: Revenge Of The Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), and the character has been continuously referenced in movies and TV shows since.

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Universal never forgot about the creature, either. In fact, the studio had begun to plan a remake of The Creature From The Black Lagoon in 1982, at a time when it began to look back at its archive of properties to rework into modern movies. The project was spearheaded by director and self-confessed movie geek John Landis, who wanted to coaxe Jack Arnold – who by this point was largely helming TV shows like The Love Boat – back as director.

Landis would have served as producer on the new Creature From The Black Lagoon, with legendary British screenwriter Nigel Kneale (the mind behind the classic Quatermass series) in charge of writing the script. The new take on the classic tale would have involved two monsters – one gentle, the other violent – who wind up on the wrong side of the US military. 

That incarnation of Creature never happened – reportedly because of a disagreement over its 3D presentation. Landis was determined to make the movie 3D, just as the original had been shot in 1954. Universal, meanwhile, had other ideas; the studio didn’t want the Creature remake to distract attention away from Jaws 3-D, released in 1983 to scathing reviews and tepid box-office in 1983. Thereafter, the brief interest for 3D which flared up in the early ’80s soon ebbed away again, just as it had in the 1950s. This might explain why the Landis-produced Creature remake faded away, too (Joe Dante and Mike Finnell were attached to the project later in the 1980s, but that incarnation of the Creature also fell apart).

Creature From The Black Lagoon suddenly burst back into life in the 1990s, however, thanks to one of the best genre directors of his generation: John Carpenter. Carpenter certainly seemed like a decent fit for a monster movie remake; he was an acclaimed horror director, with the likes of the genre-defining slasher Halloween under his belt. He’d made a string of movies which had grown into cult favorites – among them the deliriously intense thriller Assault On Precinct 13 and the wry sci-fi action flick, Escape From New York.

Most of all, Carpenter had directed another remake for Universal: The Thing, based on Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World. The Thing wasn’t a great success for Universal on release in 1982, and critics like Vincent Canby railed against it (“Instant Junk”, he wrote), but it had managed to find the audience it deserved on video and cable television. 

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The Thing was by no means the hack-work of a jobbing filmmaker, either. Carpenter directed with efficiency and an insidiously measured pace, the cold of its Antarctic setting creeping into the bones as Dean Cundey’s beautiful cinematography prowls through the story. The film’s paranoid atmosphere contrasted violently with Rob Bottin’s extraordinary creature effects.

The monster played by James Arness was a staple of ’50s cinema, but it was as nothing compared to the shape-shifting creature in Carpenter’s movie; capable of hiding in plain sight as an ordinary human, it was prone to bursting into horrific contortions of flesh and sinew when cornered. One scene, now famous, sees a severed human head sprout eyes and arachnid legs. A character speaks for the audience when he says, “You gotta be fucking kidding…”

Carpenter could therefore be relied on not just to stir around the same ingredients from Howard Hawks’ Creature From The Black Lagoon, but come up with something new, unexpected, and possibly even confrontational. Besides, Carpenter’s career appeared to be on an upswing in the early 1990s; Chevy Chase had used his considerable star wattage to essentially force Warner Bros to hire Carpenter to direct the troubled comedy-thriller Memoirs Of An Invisible Man. Carpenter had gone into the project knowing it had the potential to be a poisoned chalice; Ivan Reitman and Richard Donner had already walked away from it, Chase was known to be a demanding actor to work with, and the script had already been through several rewrites.

Nevertheless, both the studio and director seemed up-beat about the movie’s chances; it was a big, $40 million summer effects movie (that budget was more than 10 times Carpenter’s last film, the $3 million cult gem They Live) and boasted a bankable star among its cast. 

Carpenter’s decision to take on such an expensive movie had made him a big name in Hollywood again; he was being offered scripts other than the usual low-budget horror fare that normally slid across his desk. At one point, he planned to make Pincushion, an action movie starring Cher.

The big project for Carpenter, though, was Creature From The Black Lagoon. The opportunity came up when Carpenter had a meeting with Tom Pollock, then Universal’s president.

“He said, ‘Look though our library of pictures, and see if there’s anything you want to make,'” Carpenter told Starlog back in 1992. “The first thought that came to mind was Creature From The Black Lagoon.”

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Carpenter described to Pollock his idea of setting the remake in the modern Amazon – something that immediately excited Pollock. And so it was that Carpenter got to work on his own take on Jack Arnold’s classic movie, taking the best elements from the original – the creature, the underwater photography, which was unusually good for the time – and reworking it for a new audience. As a result, Nigel Kneale’s script was to be rewritten.

“Nigel wrote a very interesting script,” Carpenter said, “but it was written for 3D. It was also written 10 years ago, and things have changed since then […] We’re going to start from the beginning, but we may use aspects of Nigel’s work. He wrote some pretty neat scenes, but we’re going to redo them.”

Carpenter had worked with Nigel Kneale before on Halloween III: Season Of The Witch, but Kneale had apparently bristled when Carpenter wanted to change elements of his script. Years later, Carpenter would describe Kneale as “irascible” and “mean,” which is probably why he wasn’t in any hurry to work with him again, despite his clear admiration for the writer’s work.

Instead, Carpenter hired the screenwriters Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, a duo behind such comedy hits as Trading Places, Brewster’s Millions, and Twins. They weren’t an obvious choice to pen a tragi-horror monster movie, but then again, Carpenter clearly had plans to insert a bit of wry commentary into his remake. One of these was to insert a subplot about creationists and their attempts to square scientific facts from the fossil record with biblical teachings.

“There are several possible aspects to the storyline,” Carpenter said in 1992. “One of them involves the Creature being the missing link between man and fish. It would be interesting to combine that with creationist scientists, who are trying to prove that man walked with dinosaurs 10,000 years ago. They try to prove the literal, Biblical origin of life – in total contradiction of scientific fact.”

Not that Carpenter had forgotten the all-important horror elements in the story, either. In fact, he wanted to go for a quite dark-sounding edge to the Creature – even drawing on ideas from the macabre writer H.P. Lovecraft. 

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“I would also love to work in a little Lovecraftian feel,” Carpenter told Starlog. “I’m thinking of The Shadow Over Innsmouth – fish mating with humans. There has been a legend about this man//fish, so perhaps there was a race of them, living in the Amazon. Supposedly, there are hidden pyramids in the Amazon, so I want to try to get that in there.”

Pyramids in the Amazon? Clearly, this wasn’t going to be a cheap production. But it would have been a good-looking one – not least because Carpenter had hired special effects genius Rick Baker to design the new creature suit. Carpenter wanted to retain the classic look of the Gill-man, but with a less obvious, rubbery look.

“I don’t want to make him unrecognizable,” Carpenter said. “I want the Creature From The Black Lagoon. However, I think he could look less rubbery. His claws don’t have to bounce the way they did [in the original film]. But essentially, he’s not really broken, so why fix him?”

Baker was also to be involved with the earlier attempts to remake Creature a decade earlier, from Landis onwards. But it was Carpenter’s version that came the closest to fruition, Baker told Ain’t It Cool.

“We actually did a whole bunch of designs and maquettes,” Baker said. “My designs for the Creature were kind of like my designs for the Wolf Man; it was very much based on a love for the original material, and trying to stay true to that in a lot of ways. I think we had a creature that was updated, but you could still tell where it came from.”

Sadly, the pairing of Carpenter and Baker never made it to the screen. The commercial failure of Memoirs Of An Invisible Man may have played a part; whatever happened behind the scenes, the Creature project seemed to be in trouble by January 1993. Even more disappointingly, one news story from this period suggests that the movie came tantalizingly close to going ahead:

“The film, which was announced as part of the deal Carpenter and his producer wife Sandy King made with Universal last year, is stalled after months of preparation,” a story in the Reading Eagle says, “including monster and production designs and effects planning. [It’s] awaiting either a green light or cancellation from the studio.”

As we now know, Universal failed to give the all-important green light. With Carpenter’s departure, numerous other directors have involved themselves in Universal’s occasional attempts to revive the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Rick Baker recalls that Ivan Reitman was in the chair at one point, but that project’s take on the premise left Baker feeling more than a little disillusioned.

“Their thinking was so different from my thinking that I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Baker told Ain’t It Cool. “They were making it part-dinosaur, part-every fish in the world. It wasn’t the Gill-man.”

Since the 1990s, a revolving door of directors have tried their hand at making a new Creature feature: Gary Ross, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, and Breck Eisner to name a few. As recently as last year, there were reports that Scarlett Johansson had been offered the lead role in a new version, apparently called The Black Lagoon.

For now, though, the Creature remains as he so often was in his original movies: lurking far beneath the surface, tantalizingly out of reach. 

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.